Although the intellectual value of Twitter discourse is typically dubious at best, I recently had an interesting discussion with a colleague about the merits of Brian De Palma as a director. Although he's held in high regard by many critics, I've never found him to be a particularly great filmmaker, and argued that at best he's a visual stylist who can make material look good but can't otherwise improve upon the scripts he's given. That said, I'm a big fan of Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, and Mission: Impossible, precisely (if not exclusively) because of his ability to create operatic, invigorating set pieces.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment released Carlito's Way on Blu-ray May 18, and that's a film I've also always really, really enjoyed, thanks in no small part to David Koepp's screenplay and Sean Penn's amazing performance as David Kleinfeld. But 17 years after its release, with dozens upon dozens of crime movies (not to mention Al Pacino performances) infiltrating memories and opinions about its impact and influence, is De Palma's return to Scarface territory still satisfying?
The Facts: Released November 10, 1993, Carlito's Way was a modest hit, earning approximately $36 million against its $30 million budget, and garnered two Golden Globe nominations, for Penn's supporting turn as Kleinfeld and Penelope Ann Miller's performance as Carlito's girlfriend Gail. Despite its lack of nominations from other critics or industry groups, the film maintains an 81 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and begat a straight-to-DVD sequel in 2005 named Carlito's Way: Rise to Power.
What Still Works: Pacino once famously said in The Godfather Part III, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" and this film further lives up to that idea: Carlito is freed from jail after five years, hopefully wiser and more mature, and yet finds himself more tangled in crime, violence and corruption than ever. While that exploration proved underwhelming in Francis Ford Coppola's final Godfather installment, however, De Palma turns Pacino's on screen "maturation" into a series of saturated, engaging set pieces that are as thoughtful as they are thrilling.
Koepp's screenplay is where most of the film's substance comes from; the writer shapes Edwin Torres' novels into a chronicle of one man's futile attempts to escape his past, and perhaps even more dangerously, assume that he has learned the necessary lessons in order to do so. There's a tragedy to Carlito's sense that he both knows and maybe knows he's underestimating the world he emerged into after prison, particularly in dealing with Benny Blanco (a seldom-better John Leguizamo), whom he dismisses as a purse-snatcher only to discover that whatever sense of honor or sophistication Carlito might have attributed to his heyday is long gone.
Meanwhile, Penn's performance is key to the entire film, and it's one of his all-time best. The actor spent much of the 1980s trying to live down Jeff Spicoli in roles that gave him serious challenges – to mixed effect - but finally demonstrated his true talent playing a coked-up, paranoid, delusionally self-important attorney who, as Carlito astutely observes at one point, stops being a lawyer and starts being a gangster. It is of course his fear and arrogance which further drags Carlito down into the criminal underworld from which he wants to escape, but Penn gives the character an intelligence and just enough self-awareness to point out that it was his qualities as a litigator and his white-collar upbringing that got the former dealer out of prison, not Carlito's connections or criminal hook-ups.
Finally, De Palma does a wonderful job juggling the demands of the story's characters and action, creating set pieces that develop naturally and build into riveting climaxes. The final chase on the subway is at once heightened and perfectly believable, but it's the showstopper that wraps up a terrific series of sequences, including Carlito's unfortunate reintroduction to a post-prison world when he finds himself an unwitting participant in a drug deal gone wrong, and a prison break that seals Carlito's fate when Kleinfeld kills one of his clients. While the film certainly could have just been a redux of De Palma's Scarface, the director turns that crime opus into a character study and highlights his own great strengths in the process – namely, that he can apply his style to something already rich and meaningful to create something entertaining and intelligent at the same time.
What Doesn't Work: After seeing this film probably a dozen times and liking it more or less unconditionally until now, I can say that it feels a little bit too long. The accumulation and convergence of events is decidedly more patient than it would be in a contemporary movie, which is not a problem, but the story occasionally feels like it drags, particularly in terms of the relationship between Carlito and Gail, which creates additional dramatic tension but probably could have been condensed without sacrificing its impact. (For example, they probably could have skipped the introduction scene where she lies to him about doing dancing and first shown her in the strip club, although that obviously might have made her seem trashier than she's meant to be.)
Otherwise I think the film's biggest problem is that it starts and ends with the same scene. Not unlike, say, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Lolita, which I count as one of his least successful films (bearing in mind he's my all-time favorite director), there's nowhere to go when you show the ending at the beginning, and as tragic as the events are which lead up to Carlito and Gail's attempt to flee the country, the payoff, the finale, doesn't feel as rewarding or cathartic as maybe it should. In fact, it feels like De Palma wanted to have his cake and eat it too, which is to say deliver the appropriate ending for a story about the destruction, and more importantly, self-destruction of a life of crime, but give the audience something uplifting and hopeful at the same time.
As a result, the ending feels both inevitable and sort of abrupt, leaving the audience wanting more after investing in caring for a character who both commits heinous acts but knows that they can and will lead to his death. Moreover, the wraparound structure doesn't benefit the beginning of the film, really, except to give De Palma the opportunity to show the same labyrinthine camera shot twice; if the film opened with Carlito's grandiose speech in court, the film would have started with a dubious sense of liberation – the question whether he was seriously going straight – and then become a descent into a lifestyle he couldn't escape, rather than an acknowledgment from the outset that he couldn't escape it.
What's The Verdict:Carlito's Way holds up pretty well, and in my opinion it's one of De Palma's finest films – at the very least, one of his best since 1990. The film contains all of his visual flourishes and yet stays on a track that keeps it entertaining to more than just De Palma-philes, and best of all tells an interesting, entertaining story. Of course, as a cinematic populist when it comes to this particular director – meaning I look at his films appreciating them on their individual merits rather than filtering them through whatever perceived or actual artistic vision he possesses – this may not mean the film is great. (And I sincerely welcome comments or responses that really try to explain or justify De Palma's artistry, which I have yet to see defended at length but am open to reading.) But as a stirring companion piece to Scarface and an engaging crime thriller that boasts wonderful performances and terrific visuals, Carlito's Way is a great movie.